Ten years ago Rab learned the secret of the planet he calls home - and lost the young girl he'd vowed to protect; traded for a sweater and a pair of boots. Since then he's wandered the barren surface searching for her. Now he must guide others back to his deserted village, certain the journey will tell him nothing he doesn't already know - he is wrong.
"There's always a sense of mystery in Lafferty Webb's work, a mystery that seems to be conveyed between the lines rather than in them. This sense of mystery gives an extra dimension to everything she writes. The plot has some lovely, imaginative developments, and the ending left me keen to read the last book in the series when it comes out."
Danielle de Valera
"Another winning book for fans of well done sci fi/fantasy novels."
The Dilettante Bookworm
"Gripped from the beginning"
DnS Media Book Reviews
"Readers will be drawn into the story from the very first page."
Diane Riggins - author of the Blood and Water series, and the Fur and Fang series
"... creative and engrossing ... death, treachery and lies are all interwoven brilliantly into the story. "
Jemma Telford - Reviewer
"It hit a lot of the right notes for me in terms of description, character development, world-building - and the twist at the end was great!"
Toni L.H. Boughton - author of Wolf Running
"Like all good speculative fiction, Web has placed very human characters into a world very different from the one we are familiar with..." Daan Spijer - thinking-allowed.com.au
WHEN the horn sounded, shrill and urgent, Rab peered over the side of the steep-walled ravine, looking for Cloud. As soon as he had lowered her down on the rope, she had waded across the shallow stream to harvest from the opposite bank. Although the banks on both sides of the stream were seeded each season, for some reason ungtilis always thrived best on the far side. Some time ago Cloud had completely disappeared among the lushly growing stand. She’d be on her hands and knees now, snipping the tall blades close to the base where most of the flavour was concentrated. Her head surfaced at the second blast of the horn. Rab covered his ears with his hands. Seeing him, Cloud just smiled and slowly began shaking her head.
She wasn’t going to play along. He’d more or less expected that she wouldn’t. Cloud was halfway across the calf-deep stream, having threaded her way through the remaining ungtilis crop, when the horn sounded for the third time.
Rab stepped away from the edge of the ravine and walked back to the sturdy boulder where he’d tied off the rope to check that the knot was still secure. Below him, Cloud would be putting on her boots. He made it back to the edge just in time to grab the rope as Cloud began her ascent. It wasn’t so long ago that there had only been a sprinkling of thorny urse clinging to the cracks and crevices in the ravine walls. Urse was the name Feathers gave to any plant they didn’t cultivate or exploit and, like the ungtilis on the stream bank, this particular type of urse had begun to thrive in the warmer weather, posing an additional hazard to Cloud’s climb. Qworkas didn’t favour the thorny urse, so before she went harvesting again, he’d have to descend the wall himself and slash the bushes back. No harm done. It was kind of ironic really because, a decade ago, he would never have believed the day would come when the vegetation on this planet needed pruning.
Rab might have smiled at that thought had the horn not sounded again. Someday he’d convince Cloud to ignore it. What’s the worst that could happen? Cloud had never been prepared to find out – yet.
He felt a sideways pull on the rope and glanced down into the ravine, looking for her among the urse. She was hanging off the rope in a clear spot to the left. No question – the urse would have to be thinned out before she scrambled down into the ravine again.
When Cloud drew close to the top, Rab dropped to his knees, ready to offer his hand to haul her the last of the way up. She really didn’t need his help but accepted it just the same. The Qworka-skin bag slung across her back was bulging. The harvest had been good this year.
“Any idea what this is about?” Cloud asked. She shrugged the bag from her back and passed it to Rab. Before she’d descended into the ravine, her dark hair had been bundled tidily into one long braid. Now the braid was coming unravelled at the edges and the odd urse thorn was caught up in the loose strands.
“Not a clue,” Rab replied, slinging the bag across his back.
Cloud started pulling the rope up the side of the ravine, making loop on loop in her hands.
“Four short blasts,” she said, glancing at Rab as she began to make her way back to the boulder where he’d secured the end of the rope, coiling as she went. “Can’t be all that important.”
“Precisely why I suggested we ignore it,” Rab said, trailing after her.
Cloud shrugged as she bent and started on Rab’s knot. “You knot like a Feather. Next time, would you consider making them easier to untie?”
“Want to fall down the ravine?” Rab countered.
“Not especially,” she replied, smiling up at him over her shoulder. “You’re curious,” she said, turning back to the troublesome knot. “You’re always curious. You just don’t want to admit it.” The knot finally came free.
“Not especially,” Rab told her and, raising his boot, tapped her gently on the leg.
She rose, coiling the last of the rope. “I swear the older you get, the more you remind me of Fin,” she said with a gentle punch to his shoulder before starting out ahead of him towards home.
Alone, Rab and Cloud made their way through the gate in the outermost wall ringing their settlement. Once inside they veered left, located the gate in the second wall and passed through it. Weaving right, they backtracked for some distance until they came upon the gate in the third and innermost wall and entered the settlement itself. Theirs was the largest of the Feather settlements, being the seat of government, and the only settlement with a substantial population of tunnel-people – the doq’iri, a Feather word that Rab had soon learned meant ‘thin-skin people’. In their push north, the Feathers had gone only so far. It was as though some physical barrier had stopped them. Perhaps it was simply a matter of proximity to the life-giving river. The mine was the only settlement of any kind north – jit – of the main colony. Rab had always found it curious that the Feathers used the same word for north and backward and, almost as strange, that the only other settlements were small and, for the most part, scattered to the east – seyn. While Rab had done time at the mine, neither he nor Cloud had ever seen any of the other settlements, so they relied on the word of the handful of tunnel-people who had travelled further afield. Apart from size and the number of tunnel-people living there, all settlements were apparently alike. Each was set out in the same kind of ring pattern with narrow lanes mirroring the circular outer wall and wider lanes, like spokes, connecting them. The Feathers’ dwellings, too, were generally round and usually constructed of stone or, more rarely, brick. Feathers referred to their dwellings as ts’uns. At least that’s the best the doq’iri’ had ever come to pronouncing the word; Feather was a challenging language. The windows in ts’uns were either narrow or non-existent and their roofs sheathed in Qworka-skin or a thick rough cloth saturated with the boiled down fat of Qworkas to render it water-repellent. The ts’uns where the tunnel-people lived were constructed in a similar fashion, although they were considerably smaller and crowded closely together near the perimeter. For practical reasons, their walls were higher since even the shortest human stood a good head above the tallest featherwoman, who on the whole were of superior height to the males. Rab and Cloud’s ts’un lay on the far side of the settlement, furthest from the outer gate.
There was no time to rush back to their ts’un and off-load the heavy coil of rope and the bag, which was stuffed almost full with Cloud’s abbreviated gleanings. Instead they hurried down the wide lane leading to the core of the settlement, passing as they went an outer swath of simple ts’uns. The closer they drew to the core where the more affluent and influential of the Feathers lived, the more elaborate and colourfully decorated the ts’uns became. The Common, along with the palace that flanked it, dominated the centre of the settlement. Most days the Common served as a public thoroughfare but, save for an intricately carved stone throne, the raised semicircular platform at its heart usually stood empty, being reserved for the sole use of the Kun and his attendants, whether they happened to be occupying it at that particular time or not.
Now the Common hosted an eclectic gathering of Feathers and doq’iri, although the two rarely intermingled even when marshalled to Assembly. Feathers and doq’iri weren’t exactly on equal footing and neither could readily communicate with the other in anything much but hand-signals and the odd featherword a few of the tunnel-people had eventually mastered. If it weren’t for Lilly Benson, there’d be no understanding at all and the Feathers rise to ascendency might have been a bloodier but more obvious climb. Instead it had been a creeping, insidious thing that was done before the tunnel-people had even realised it. Sunny would have seen it coming. Even her old grandfather might have had wits enough to suspect the Feathers’ intentions. Rab hadn’t and, like the rest of his kind, had simply let it happen. His grand and noble hope that Feathers and humans could live as equals had been as naïve and foolish a dream as the quest he’d once taken to find the ships that could carry them to safe harbour on some distant and more hospitable planet. Now he and the rest of his human companions were more like captives on this planet than the guests he had hoped they would be … no better than slaves who planted and harvested the masters’ crops, labourers who built and repaired the rock-walls that ringed the masters’ settlements, miners who dug and sifted dirt for their red metal, and unwilling soldiers who, bit by bit, hacked away at the Top-siders already declining numbers whenever their pitiful forces foolishly decided to attack. In some respects the tunnel-people functioned as currency, too, their labour traded off in allotments of time from one Feather owner to another in payment for a debt or anticipation of a favour. Although the Kun owned most of the humans himself, there were a few, a very few, Feathers who had been granted the special privilege of personal ownership of a human. Fin was one of those rare humans under personal ownership. Rab and Cloud belonged to the Kun.
This was not the kind of life Rab had hoped for when he and Gift had brought Pi’a’weh back to his people; not the kind of life Cloud and Fin had hoped for, either, when they’d abandoned the relative safety of Glint’s Top-sider band to come looking for them. They could leave, of course. Sneak out through the three-walled defences late at night. But to what? More scavenging? They’d done enough of that. To where? The desert where they could join up with the few surviving Top-siders? They’d simply be trading one side of the conflict for the other and that didn’t make a lot of sense – not when here, with the Feathers, they had three meals a day, a roof over their heads when it rained, shelter when it grew cold, although at the cost of their freedom and pride. At least the children were safe. Well fed and safe – most of the time. Rab tried to keep telling himself that, even if he didn’t fully believe it. And he’d never say anything of the kind to Gift. Her child, Sunny’s namesake, was still out there with Glint and his people among the Top-siders … among the enemy … assuming Glint’s people were even still alive.
Rab stepped up beside Cloud, falling into place at the rear of the assembled tunnel-people. Cloud dropped the rope she’d been carrying to the ground by her feet and, slipping the Qworka-skin bag from his shoulders, Rab placed it on top of the coil of rope. As he looked around, he noted, not for the first time, that their numbers, too, were slowly dwindling. The old ones he’d seen and met when Sunny had first brought him down into her tunnel city were nearly all gone now – even Ruby, the woman who had nursed Fin’s brother back to health and then seen to his burial ten years later. Of all the tunnel-people who had gone, Rab missed Ruby the most. At least she’d been spared the long journey and hadn’t been among the large group of tunnel-dwellers the Feathers had force-marched across the rugged land to this once desolate place, where now life was beginning to blossom once again. A decade and more ago, while Rab had only wondered if the climate was shifting and could only hope that the subtle warming he had noticed year after year wasn’t an aberration, somehow the Feathers had known it wasn’t. Whatever had given them that knowledge had also prompted them to commence their long migration north from their distant southern asylum. How many times and across how many generations they had made that journey south when the weather began to chill, then north again when it began to warm, even the Feathers probably couldn’t answer. But migrate they did, each time taking away and bringing back the Qworkas along with the cages that penned the hairless but otherwise cat-like Juarox no human could stomach, their seeds and their ancient skills to both husband and exploit the healing surface. Only this time they’d stumbled upon the tunnel city and collected a ready source of labour on their way. And they’d stumbled upon something else equally unexpected: a relentless though deplorably outnumbered enemy in the nomadic Top-siders.
When Cloud nudged his elbow, Rab glanced to his left and spotted a frowning Fin walking towards them, little Tickie perched on his back. For an instant, Rab was transported back in time. That’s just the way he had carried Fin’s brother in the cold and the mist and the snow for day after endless day until they had come upon Sunny. So much time had passed. Stitch had been dead these many years and Fin had a young child of his own now.
Tickie’s little face broke into an enormous smile the moment he noticed Cloud.
“Kood,” he squealed, the high pitch prompting Rab to cringe.
Kood was the closest Tickie ever came to pronouncing Cloud’s name.
“Tickie,” Cloud chimed back and, reaching out, took the willing child from his father’s shoulders.
Over the nine years they’d been with the Feathers, Cloud had developed an affinity with children – other people’s children. But she’d stitched too many wounds, set too many splintered bones, failed and prevailed over too many fevers only to send the young survivors into a future of endless servitude to ever want any children of her own. It had been an easy agreement for Rab. Even if not by blood, he’d already had two sons and a daughter – lost one boy in death and the girl to a broken spirit.
“Do you know why we’ve been called?” Cloud asked Fin as she settled Tickie comfortably onto her hip.
“A couple of scouts returned early this morning while you were both gone,” Fin replied, ruffling his son’s fair hair. “I’m guessing there’s some news.”
“Top-siders?” Rab enquired.
“Where’s Neila?” Cloud asked, glancing around in search of Fin’s wife.
Rab, too, had noticed her absence among the softly-talking clutch of tunnel-people.
“She was rostered to the mine just after you left this morning,” Fin replied. “Guess she’s about halfway there already.”
Now Fin’s dour mood made sense. Fin invariably became edgy and anxious whenever Neila worked the mine. It wasn’t hard to understand why. The mine was a dangerous place. Rab had spent three years coming and going from that dusty open hole in the ground. It was hard labour. Even the Feathers seemed to appreciate that and, as strange as it always seemed to Rab, weren’t disposed to work the miners to death. Cloud had never been rostered out to the mine, her obvious and natural skill with the planet’s native flora apparently being viewed as too valuable a gift to squander by having her dig for red metal.
Rab was about to ask who else had been placed on the roster when Tickie raised his tiny arm, waving and pointing it close to Rab’s face. Rab looked and saw Lilly Benson, one of the few, rare survivors from her generation, shuffling in her distinctive bent kind of way across the Common. As usual, Button dutifully plodded along beside her. One of Button’s hands was cupped beneath Lilly’s elbow to steady the elderly woman. In the other hand, she carried the stool that Lilly would sit on when she took her place on the left corner of the platform.
“Looks like we’re included this time,” Rab said, nodding in Lilly’s direction.
Lilly didn’t attend every Assembly and, when she did, it generally meant the Kun had something particular to convey to the tunnel-people as well. Rab was usually heartened to see Lilly arrive. Her presence signified that they wouldn’t be forced to stand in the Common, impotent and ignorant, while the Kun rasped and clicked his way through some long and incomprehensible message to his people. Today there was something about the expression on Lilly’s face that unsettled him. She looked tired, worried. Then again Lilly often looked tired and worried, he supposed. She was an old woman. She’d left most of her friends behind in the tunnels and seen those who had been forced on the long journey with her buried here on the surface. Without the Feathers’ devoted attention, Rab suspected Lilly, too, would have gone to her grave long ago. Still, despite her pampered treatment, Rab had the suspicion that Lilly would have much preferred to be standing among the jumble of pots and pans in her stall back home in the tunnel city than to be seated by the side of the Kun, translating for her people whenever the Kun felt disposed to permit it.
What would they do, Feathers and doq’iri, when their translator was dead? Of all the tunnel-people, it had been a perverse stroke of luck that the distracted and frequently vague Lilly had been gifted with the ability to pick up feathertalk. Although some of the surface-born tunnel-children were slowly developing a modest familiarity with the harsh sounds and terminal clicks, none so far had remotely approached Lilly’s proficiency. Of course, most of the Feathers hadn’t bothered to reciprocate, clearly regarding tunneltalk as little but inconsequential gibberish. Only Pi’a’weh had mastered a little of their language, although it had taken considerable effort and a great deal of time to do so.
Cloud grasped Rab’s arm and, with some concern, he noticed a cloaked featherman, one of the Kun’s regular attendants, bearing down on them. Cloud’s hand slipped from Rab’s sleeve as the Feather began to lead her away towards the front of the gathered tunnel-people. Grabbing the Qworka-skin bag and the coil of rope, Rab hurried after her, slinging both bag and rope over his shoulder as he pushed his way through the crowd. He could sense Fin close behind. When Tickie raised his arms, clearly growing distressed, Rab snatched him from Cloud’s hip and passed the young boy back to his father. A young human learned early that, as far as Feathers were concerned, it was better to be invisible.
It was no use calling to the Feather who had a hold of Cloud. Even if he could have understood what Rab said, he wouldn’t respond. All Rab could do was stay close. He’d been too focused on Cloud to notice until then that the platform at the head of the Common was no longer deserted. Not only had Lilly been settled into her allotted place, Button standing sentinel-like at her back, but most of the Kun’s attendants had already filed through the narrow channel down which the Kun, himself, would slowly wind his way. The Feather who had been leading Cloud left her among her kind in the front row directly in front of Lilly. He’d displayed as much interest as someone discarding an empty pack. Turning, he started up the ten broad steps to the platform where he stationed himself to the side of the Kun’s throne.
“This can’t be good,” Fin whispered at Rab’s back. “Seems the Kun’s got a message for Abby.”
Rab didn’t need – or want – to hear it. He glanced sidelong at Cloud, who Fin still called by her tunnel name. On catching his eye, she gave a quick shake of her head. Well, at least Rab was satisfied that she hadn’t been keeping something from him. She appeared to know as little as he did.
When Tickie began to tug on the loose end of the rope, Rab flung the coil back towards Fin, hoping to keep the boy distracted. The bag he kept on his shoulder.
A shuffle of heavily-shod feet and the swish of feathers up on the platform signalled the Kun was nearing the exit of the channel and would soon emerge into the open. Most Feathers had abandoned their fine feather cloaks, donning them only during the perceptibly colder snow times. Otherwise the tightly-woven cloth garments covering the thick rind of their skin provided adequate protection. The Kun and his attendants were the exception. Rab had never seen them without their elaborate feather cloaks and the Kun’s cloak with its row upon row of intense and various colours was, not surprisingly, the most splendid of all. It had taken a long time and his first breath-taking sight of an arc of colour in the sky for Rab to realise that the feathers of the Kun’s cloak had been dyed to mimic a rainbow, something he’d only seen before in pictures in the books down in the tunnel city library. The Feathers paid homage to nature in almost every aspect of their lives, and that was probably one of the things about them that Rab most readily understood. They, like his kind, had been deprived of colour and variation for so long that where they couldn’t find it, they created it. For the Feathers, life and art went hand in hand. The brick and stone walls of their ts’uns were always decorated using pigments that, now, were sought out and collected for them by the enslaved tunnel-people. A Feather might ornament the exterior of his or her ts’un with the figure of an animal – sometimes a Qworka – sometimes some other animal that was either imagined or perhaps remembered from their ancestral past. Sometimes Rab could make no sense at all of a decoration that just looked like lines or nested circles and squares to him. Clearly there was some significance to the pattern because the drawings were always executed with exacting precision and often repeated from ts’un to ts’un. But the Feathers didn’t limit their art to their ts’uns or to items of special value. Even the simplest and most mundane utensil was usually adorned in some form. Rab hadn’t seen a pick handle, a cooking pot, the legs of a table or even the back of a spoon that wasn’t inscribed in some fashion. But the Kun’s throne, with its deeply incised carvings on the front, sides and, as rumour had it, even the seat, was unarguably the most resplendent. The animals and plants that decorated the natural surface of the stone throne appeared to have been snatched out of a moment in time, beasts at the very point of springing, plants caught as they answered some ancient, played-out wind. Now both were locked together forever, unchanged and unchanging, stilled by the experienced and knowing hand of the Feather who had snared them. The throne, along with everything else the Feathers could carry or drive, like the Qworka flocks, had been brought up from the south. Rab had watched the constant progression of the vast migration in both fascination and awe while he and Gift had journeyed northward with the Feathers. It had taken ten of the strongest and biggest feathermen and women to haul the enormous six-wheeled cart in which the Kun’s throne had been securely tied down with straps that Rab later discovered had been made from the tough sinew of slaughtered Qworkas. It had been those same ten strong feathermen and women who had lifted the throne from the cart and set it in its temporary location until the Kun’s palace and the semicircular platform in front of it had been completed. Although he didn’t know for certain – it wasn’t always easy to distinguish one Feather from another – Rab suspected it might have been those same ten who had lifted the throne once again onto the platform where it now rested, awaiting the Kun who had just emerged into the open, heralded by another brief shuffle and swish. It might have been his imagination, but it seemed to Rab that, just like the Kun’s attendants, Lilly’s back might have stiffened a little as she sat, waiting patiently on her stool at the far edge of the platform.
The Feathers, who made up a good three-quarters of the crowd, had fallen silent long before the Kun’s rear touched the seat of his throne. It took Rab’s fellows longer to respond and still, every now and then, Rab heard a muted cough or the soft mewling of an infant. Likely the Kun would not be pleased. It was usually impossible to glean much from looking at a Feather’s face, the hard rind of skin limiting their means for expression, at least as far as human interpretation went, but, every so often, Rab swore he could detect some subtle change. Perhaps it was something different about their strange eyes that blinked sideways rather than up and down. Whatever it was, Rab felt certain that he’d seen a scowl momentarily distort the face of more than one of the Kun’s attendants. It seemed that, in the Feathers’ eyes, humans were just never going to measure up.
A shiver suddenly ran down Rab’s spine, prompting him to glance away from the throne towards the opposite side of the Common. He knew it. Pi’a’weh was standing in the front row of Feathers and, even at a distance, Rab could tell that he was looking directly at Cloud. There was something odd about that Feather – more odd than usual anyway. From the first moment Cloud had begun to tend to his injuries, Pi’a’weh had developed an intense interest in her. It bothered Rab; it more than bothered him. Sometimes Rab got the feeling that there was something Pi’a’weh wanted to say to her. He’d mastered a few words of their language and if it was thanks he was wanting to express, Pi’a’weh could certainly have done that by now. So it had to be something else.
A single blast of a horn snapped Rab’s attention back to the platform. The Kun was ready to speak. The Kun never rose to address the Assembly and any personal message that was to be conveyed was done so by one of the Kun’s attendants who would step down off the platform and seek out the recipient in the crowd. Usually the attendant charged with that duty was the same one who had blown that accursed horn: Big-Noise, Gift had quickly dubbed him. On the rare occasion a message was to be passed to one or all of Rab’s people, it was generally accomplished through Lilly Benson.
Today it appeared that the message the Kun had for Cloud was not going to be of foremost importance because he immediately launched into what, from long experience, Rab suspected was going to be another tedious monologue delivered in typical staccato style with each second or third word terminated in a sound much like the click of a tongue or the snap of a dry stick. As the Kun clicked on, Rab shifted anxiously from foot to foot, sometimes glancing at Cloud, sometimes looking over his shoulder towards Fin, who seemed transfixed by the Kun’s unintelligible address. Tickie was very obviously bored and Rab hoped Fin would think to keep the boy quiet. Teasing out the frayed ends of the rope wasn’t going to keep him occupied for much longer but any disruption could only delay the Kun’s speech.
Click – snap. Click – snap. At one point during the Kun’s seemingly endless speech, a muffled sort of gasp bubbled up among the Feathers on the far side of the Common. Apart from that and a barely audible one word utterance from Fin, Rab noticed nothing else unusual. Matters were progressing much as they always had at every Assembly.
He didn’t know how much more he could take. Along with his eyesight and his hearing, with age, Rab’s capacity for patience had deteriorated. When the Kun turned to Big-Noise, Rab almost missed it. The Feather stepped down off the platform and Rab’s immediate thought was that he was heading for Cloud. Instead, the Feather began a slow meander among the gathering of tunnel-people, stopping every so often to study someone in the crowd. Rab tried to follow his progress but continued to lose sight of Big-Noise until he singled out one of the older boys and, grasping him roughly by the upper arm, made to lead the youngster away. Immediately the woman standing beside the boy cried out and lunged to regain him. She had made a foolish mistake. With a casual swing of his free arm, Big-Noise caught the woman hard across the throat and dispatched her, crumpled, to the ground. There was one among the crowd with the courage to stoop to the woman’s aid but Big-Noise, distracted by the resisting boy, failed to notice.
The crowd parted for Big-Noise after that and, when he set about selecting first a girl and then another two boys, no one dared interfere. The children were quickly shepherded away from the Assembly and passed to another of the Kun’s attendants who escorted them into a narrow lane leading off from the Common. It happened sometimes, this mustering during Assembly, and since only that morning a contingent of workers had been sent off to the mines, it was clear the four children were destined for the quarry. While the mines demanded back-breaking labour, the quarry was a sentence to hell. From experience, the Feathers had learned to select only the sturdiest of humans for quarry-work, those nearing adulthood who could ensure them the most longevity. Unskilled as cutters, the girl and three boys would be assigned the job of hauling and haulers had the highest incidence of all human fatalities.
With the children gone, the Kun’s interest shifted to Lilly and Rab began to listen more closely, hoping that he might be able to understand at least a word or two of the usually incomprehensible feathertalk. The mustering of the children had heightened his apprehension. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Lilly’s translation, but he’d known Lilly too long not to be wary. She wasn’t what he’d call a particularly focused woman. In fact, among the tunnel-people, she had, for a long time, been regarded as tiresomely absent-minded.
As hard as he tried all Rab managed to make out was Lilly’s name – Yiri (click-snap) – and what sounded like tchusuk, feathertalk for mushroom. But that didn’t make a lot of sense. Why would the Kun be concerning himself with such a mundane thing as mushrooms? He felt Fin grip his arm, and when Rab glanced at Cloud, hoping to learn something from her expression, he realised from her frown that she, too, had understood something of the Kun’s message to Lilly.
The Kun fell silent and Lilly turned her attention to the Assembly. Her eyes roamed the front row of humans and finally settled on Cloud.
“The Kun wishes you to return to the tunnels, Abby,” Lilly said in that same clear, strong voice Rab had only heard since she’d been living among the Feathers. “The mushroom crop has developed some kind of disease and, so far, Dee has failed to find a cure. The Kun knows of your skills and he instructs you to repair the damage. Two scouts are to escort you and you will leave at first light tomorrow morning.”
The word was out before Rab realised it. Too late now. He stepped forward, aware of Cloud’s hand, reaching out to drag him back.
“I won’t allow my wife to travel alone with only two of the Kun’s scouts for protection.”
Even from a distance, he noticed Lilly blanch.
“Are you sure that’s what you want Lilly to tell them?” someone whispered beside him.
Rab’s head snapped around. He hadn’t noticed Fin step up. Tickie wasn’t in his arms any longer, but cradled against Cloud’s chest.
Fin was right.
Rab turned his eyes to the ground for a moment, thinking.
“Lilly,” he said, looking up. “Please ask the Kun if I may accompany Abby and his scouts. Tunnel-people had developed many skills in the past and much of their knowledge was written down in the books in the library. Abby can’t read and if she fails to find something obviously wrong with the crop, she may need my help.”
“That’s all you’ve got?” Fin muttered under his breath.
“Those books won’t help,” Cloud whispered, inching up behind him.
“I know that,” Rab whispered back. “But they don’t.”
Lilly remained silent for a long moment. Although the Feathers used symbols, they had no formal written language. How Lilly was going to convey the meaning of books and library, Rab couldn’t even imagine. Still, when they’d broken into the underground city, the Feathers had seen both the books and the library that held them and Rab was counting on the Feathers having developed a description of sorts for such foreign things and for Lilly to be aware of it.
Finally Lilly began to speak and it never ceased to unsettle Rab to hear those click-and-snap sounds coming from the mouth of a human. The Kun listened in silence and, when Lilly was done, cast a brief glance of his disconcerting side-blinking eyes out towards the Assembly, catching Rab by surprise when they found him. Slowly the Kun’s focus drifted back to Lilly. His nod to her was rigid, characteristically Feather. It seemed Rab had got what he wanted and all other audience for the day was concluded because the Kun was already on his feet. It was the usual way. Only on rare occasions had Rab witnessed a featherman or woman speak up from the Assembly. Either the Kun took counsel elsewhere or he took no counsel at all. And if the latter were true, then it was truly astounding that Rab’s little ploy had been successful. He sighed silently in relief.
At the far side of the platform, Lilly was also on the move, the ever vigilant Button aiding her to her feet.
“So,” Fin said, as he attempted to wrest the frayed ends of the rope from his son’s insistent fingers, “seems you’ll be seeing Gift again soon. That’ll be interesting.” He shook his head and smiled.
Cloud swung around, wearing a look of practiced indifference Rab recognised only too well. “Can’t think what you could mean,” she replied, deftly relieving Tickie of the end of the rope before passing him back to his father.
Rab snatched the coil from Fin’s shoulder before Tickie could reclaim his prize. Until Fin had mentioned it, he hadn’t even considered that Cloud’s return to the tunnels would bring the two of them back into contact. Cloud and Gift never had taken to each other. Not since that night when he had agreed that Gift could go with him to return Pi’a’weh to his people but sent Cloud and Fin away to safety with Glint and his band. Cloud had resented Gift after that – resented her for having wounded Pi’a’weh, but probably more so for obliging, as she saw it, Rab to risk his life returning the injured featherman. Gift’s resentment was more difficult for Rab to understand. Someday maybe he would make sense of it – someday.
“We’d better start packing,” Cloud said, slipping the rope from Rab’s hand.
The crowd was beginning to disperse. Just ahead of him, the woman Big-Noise had knocked to the ground was being assisted by two others who each had a hold her elbows. She staggered as she walked – and sobbed. The boy must have been her son. Of the parents of the girl and two other boys, Rab saw nothing; they had vanished into the crowd. Glancing back, he realised that even slow-moving Lilly and Button had gone. Resigned, he started off after Cloud who, with Fin beside her, was making her way towards their ts’un on the far side of the settlement. Every so often, Tickie leaned sideways in his father’s arms, bent on reclaiming the end of the rope Cloud shouldered. He’d made quite a mess of it. When Fin lowered him to the ground, the little boy shot off into the shifting crowd, compelling his father to go chasing after him.
Cloud stopped walking and turned to Rab. “You could have chosen your words more carefully back there,” she said. “You won’t allow me to travel alone with the scouts!”
Rab knew he was going to pay for that mistake sooner or later. He’d hoped it would be later.
“It’s all I could think of to say in a hurry.”
“Next time,” Cloud said, settling the coil of rope higher onto her shoulder, “take a little longer to think. I could manage out there by myself and you know it.”
“Of course you could. That isn’t why I said it.”
“Well?” she pressed him.
“You were ordered to the tunnels, Cloud. No one said anything about bringing you back.”
Cloud opened her mouth to speak but something, a remnant of his lost blindsight most likely, prompted Rab to spin around before she got a word out.
Pi’a’weh was standing behind him.
As a consequence of his old injuries, the little featherman was plagued not only by a limp but by a constant wheeze that accompanied him wherever he went. Today the noise of the crowd had masked his approach. His yellow eyes blinked quickly sideways – once – twice – before they settled on Cloud.
“Them say met’ah – click! – Qworka that p’ace. This say doq’iri eye good.”
That’s all Rab heard and evidently all Pi’a’weh had to say.
With a parting swift blink, he began to limp away, merging quickly with the crowd.
On the rare occasions when he had spoken to them in the past, Pi’a’weh’s speech had been peppered with so many clicks and clucks, his message had been rendered largely incomprehensible. Today, although he was speaking very quietly, he was also speaking very deliberately. Still it had taken Rab a moment to work out that he had interjected the featherword for white, met’ah, into his little speech. It was one of the few featherwords Rab knew.
He turned towards Cloud, concluding very quickly that she, too, had been left just as puzzled by what sounded like some kind of warning.
“THERE are metal Qworkas out there and we should be careful. That is what he meant, isn’t it?” Cloud asked, staring after Pi’a’weh. “What a ridiculous thing to say.”
Rab turned to her and frowned. “He said met-ah, Cloud, not met-al. White,” he explained in a whisper.
“Oh, that makes so much more sense,” she replied irritably.
This wasn’t the place or time.
With a hand to her back, he hurried her on after Fin. They caught up quickly and walked with him through the thinning crowd of tunnel-people. Fin left them by the entrance to his ts’un. He looked even more uneasy than Rab felt, but promised to bring Tickie by in the morning to say goodbye.
“So,” Cloud said as soon as they were alone inside their own ts’un, “why did you shush me back there?”
“Because of the things Pi’a’weh said,” Rab replied, dumping the Qworka-skin bag inside the open doorway.
Cloud walked to a hook protruding from a side wall. “And?” she prompted, stowing the rope.
“I don’t want Fin to know about it.”
Cloud turned around, considered him for a long moment, then moved across the earthen floor of their modest ts’un to a table by the back wall. Pulling out one of the two mismatched woven urse chairs, she sat down.
“I see your point,” she said at last. “What do you think Pi’a’weh was trying to tell us?” she asked, gaze following Rab as he headed towards the table. “I mean … white Qworkas? There’s no such thing.”
“Pi’a’weh thinks there is,” Rab replied, drawing out the remaining chair. “Didn’t you notice something odd happen while the Kun was speaking? Just for a moment.”
“There was a kind of gasp,” Cloud said, interrupting. “I heard that. Do you think that’s what they were talking about? White Qworkas?”
Rab smiled half-heartedly. “Maybe. Whether it was that or not, Pi’a’weh seems to believe that these white Qworkas pose some sort of threat. And I’d feel a lot better if we knew what he meant exactly by ‘that place’.”
“The tunnels,” Cloud suggested.
Rab waved a hand. “He could have meant anywhere.”
“Or everywhere,” Cloud added. “He did say we should ‘eye good’ after all. I wish Neila wasn’t at the mine,” she said after a brief silence. “If Fin finds out about this, he might –”
Rab cut her off. “Pi’a’weh isn’t likely to tell Fin anything. I got the impression that he felt he was taking a chance just telling us.”
“I guess,” Cloud agreed with little enthusiasm. Her focus drifted towards the large old packs that were lying, almost forgotten, in the darkest recess of their simple ts’un. “Suppose we’d better start making preparations. I’ll separate the ungtilis later, give half to Fin in the morning and the rest he’d better take to the markets. It’ll only spoil if we leave it here.” She shrugged and placed her hands, palms down, on the table in front of her. “You know I was almost looking forward to going back to the tunnels, but now …” She pushed off from the table and rose. “… I’m not so sure.”
Rab followed her to the two old metal crates that stored the sum total of their possessions. Like most of their furniture and wares, the crates had been brought to the settlement from the tunnels a long time ago. They’d seen better days. The lids didn’t close properly anymore and one of the crates was crushed to the point of puncture on one side.
“I guess we just need enough to get there,” Cloud said and, dropping to her knees, flipped back the lid on the nearest crate.
“Take extra,” Rab advised, slipping to the ground beside her. “We don’t know what conditions are like in the tunnels now,” he explained when she turned to him, looking puzzled. “Do you think you can do anything about the crop?”
“Depends,” Cloud replied, returning to her sorting. “I think I’m more worried about what’s going to happen if I can’t.”
What could he say to that?
Cloud began stacking their clothes and meagre supplies in a neat pile, Rab adding to it occasionally with items he felt Cloud had overlooked. She said nothing when he placed her cropping knife beside the battered canteens she had selected to take with them.
“What’s that for?” Rab asked, when Cloud withdrew his old draw-string pouch from the bottom of the crate.
“Green-weed,” she said and, getting to her feet, took it to the low bench where they kept their cooking and healing supplies. The bench was little but a battered piece of thin metal, propped on legs of broken brick, but it served them well enough and as improbable as it seemed, the samples of erratic plant life Cloud continued to amass were enough to warrant the bench’s considerable size. From them, she made potions to reduce fever, potions to combat pain and infection, potions to ease the merciless coughing disease that fell on them during snow time, and potions that were quietly surrendered to both human and Feather when the prospect of bringing yet another child into their thinly balanced world became unthinkable.
“Green-weed doesn’t work on us,” Rab reminded her, rising to join her at the bench.
“No, it doesn’t,” she said, pulling a small and unobtrusive-looking canister from the very back row. She popped the lid, tipped the canister, and long strings of the familiar green plant along with some loose powder spilled onto the top of the bench.
Rab was surprised to discover that she still collected the stuff.
“But there’ll be two Feather scouts with us,” she told him as she began to stuff three or four of the long strings inside the pouch. “It works on them.”
Rab cupped her chin in one hand and gave her head a gentle shake. “Someone should tell you you’re too kind.” Leaving Cloud to clean up the spilled powder, he went to collect their old packs.
Just as he’d promised, at first light, Fin brought Tickie to say goodbye. Neila was still away at the mines. When Cloud handed over the two bags containing the divided ungtilis, Fin looked down and his face crumpled into a frown.
“Something wrong?” she said. “I asked you if something is wrong?” she repeated when Fin failed to answer.
“Hmm?” Fin replied absently then lifted his gaze. “Oh ...” he said, stumbling over his words. “Nothing.” He hefted one of the bags as if suddenly realising he was holding it. “What will happen if they find out about this?”
“Find out about what?” Rab said, bending to gather his full pack. “Giving you food to feed your family? We could have eaten it ourselves, you know, and never told them a thing about it.”
“Yes ... but …” Fin hesitated again, then glanced at Tickie who, at that moment, was attempting to raise Cloud’s heavy pack from the floor. “I suppose it’ll be all right. Half of it’s going to them.”
“Without lifting a finger,” Rab muttered to himself.
Sometimes he wished Fin had never come to this place. The old defiant boy was long gone and Rab missed him, something that would have struck him as unthinkable once. As he went to collect Fin’s old spear from its resting place against the far wall, he wondered again if it might not be better for them to take their chances out in the open with the dwindling number of Top-siders.
“Oh no, not that!”
Cloud’s bark snapped him out of his reverie.
“Why have you got to bring that?”
Rab just smiled back at her, as she stood beside Fin in the entrance. “Why have you got to bring the green-weed?”
From the first day Fin had made it, Cloud had started to develop an aversion to the spear. ‘It’s only good for killing things,’ she’d insisted.
And so it was!
“Maybe he should take it,” Fin said, surprising Rab.
When Cloud shot him a dark look, he added, “The Top-siders may be our kind but they’re not our friends and they’re still out there. Many things have changed since we’ve been in the settlement. You don’t know what you might be walking into.”
“And that’s what the scouts are for,” Cloud argued.
“Is it?” Rab asked, relieving Tickie of Cloud’s pack. “More likely it’s to make sure you don’t go wandering off.”
“Don’t you mean ‘we’?”
“No, I mean ‘you’,” Rab replied, passing Cloud her pack. Tickie came sprinting after him. “If I go over to the Top-siders ...” he shrugged, “… well, I’m just one more insignificant Top-sider. If you go, they’ll lose someone skilled in agriculture. This planet’s coming back to life but it’s still fragile. They need you.”
“Oh, thanks,” Cloud said, slipping her pack onto her back. “Nice to be needed by someone.” She bent to her knees and held out her arms to Tickie.
“Did I say they were the only ones?” Rab said, glancing down at her. He looked up when Fin put a hand to his shoulder.
“You’re coming back, aren’t you?”
“I don’t think that’s up to us, Fin, but we hope to. Why?”
“I thought …” Fin faltered. “…after what you just said …”
Rab shook his head. “The Top-siders are finished. There’s no point.”
Fin began to finger the ties on one of the Qworka-skin bags Cloud had given him. “Do you think Gift knows that?” he asked after a moment.
He was thinking about Sunny.
Rab didn’t reply. Gift, perhaps best of all of them, knew the chances Top-siders took every day in the open.
When Cloud released Tickie and rose, Rab turned to the little boy.
“I expect you to take care of your father while we’re gone,” he said. “Can you do that?”
“Yes,” Tickie declared with a solemn nod, then reached out for his father’s hand.
“I’d walk with you to the gate but I have to find someone to mind Tickie,” Fin said, towing his son into the lane.
“You’ll watch the place?” Rab asked.
There wasn’t much to watch and, when all was said and done, it wasn’t necessary. What could happen to it?
Fin nodded. “If you promise to be careful.”
Pi’a’weh’s same warning!
With Tickie singing out a good bye, they started off down the lane.
“That was odd,” Cloud said once they were out of earshot.
“What? Fin can’t take Tickie with him to the forge.”
“Not that,” she said, shaking her head. “I meant him asking if we were coming back.”
“He’s worried. That’s all. With Neila away at the mine …” Rab shrugged and didn’t bother to finish.
“I know how that is,” Cloud replied with a touch to Rab’s back, then glanced briefly over her shoulder.
They wound their way through the maze of lanes past modest ts’uns and, here and there, the odd patch of dirt where someone was attempting to establish a food garden. Two Feathers were waiting for them just inside the outermost gate – the scouts assigned to escort them. Rab didn’t think he knew either of them and it appeared that Cloud didn’t, either.
The Feathers had donned their cloaks, evidently anticipating that the weather might turn bad before they reached the tunnels. Rab wasn’t expecting to be given a thorough visual inspection but that’s exactly what he received. The bigger of the scouts, a female, scanned him from the top of his head to his heavily-shod feet, paying particular attention to the spear he was carrying. Cloud was subjected to a similar review from the male. Whatever they were looking for, the scouts appeared to have found it. With a wave of her long hand, the female motioned them to follow her through the gate.
“What do you think that was about?” Cloud whispered, leaning closer to Rab as she walked, step for step, behind the second scout.
“Not sure. Maybe they weren’t convinced we knew how to dress for the surface.”
Cloud snorted. “What arrogance! I could walk those little creatures into the ground. And if the Top-siders had more weapons and larger numbers –”
When the female glanced over the shoulder of her feather cloak, Rab reached for Cloud’s hand.
“I don’t think I’d mention our people from the open anymore if I were you,” he warned softly.
“Do you think they understood me?”
“Don’t know, but I’m guessing they understood something.”
They walked mostly in silence from then on with barely a word passing between the Feathers and none between Rab and Cloud. The scouts were setting a fast pace, so they should reach the roosts and the small outpost settlement that flanked it by the middle of the day. Rab heard the roosts long before he could see them. Qworka young created one hell of a racket, the main reason, Rab supposed, for founding the main settlement some distance away.
Cloud tapped Rab’s shoulder, then raised her hand to tap her ear.
She’d heard it, too.
Evidently so had the scouts, who picked up the pace, bringing them quickly into the overwhelming noise, dust, and smell of the outpost settlement. Although he’d initially carried out some of the early repairs on the roosts, Rab hadn’t been to this place in a very long time. What he saw just beyond the small and open settlement startled him. The roosts now stood fully intact – every one of them. There wasn’t a damaged wall, roof or turret to be seen. It was as though they had suddenly become alive and, in some respects, Rab supposed they had. Qworka adults were swooping into and out of the pierced openings in every one of the soaring towers. The silent dun-coloured walls he’d remembered had turned a writhing, beating black. The sound of it was almost deafening. How could the tunnel-people and the few Feather breeders who worked this place bear it? Day in, day out, nothing but the choking dust whipped up by the Qworkas’ large and powerful wings, the stench of their fertile droppings, and the noise – the endless noise. He’d never given much thought to it before but now Rab was beginning to suspect that the breeders who’d been stationed to guard the roosts and supervise the collection of their droppings might just be the least favoured of the Kun’s subjects. Or they were completely deaf.
A breeder was approaching from the small, unprotected settlement. Rab had never heard of a Top-sider raid here but the place was so vulnerable, it wouldn’t be too difficult to carry out. Perhaps it was the Qworkas and their deserved reputation for aggression that kept the Top-siders away. Cloud had barely avoided losing part of her scalp to a Qworka once. Had the beast swooped lower, she could easily have lost her head. But it had been Gift’s husband who had made the most fatal mistake, underestimating the lethalness of the Qworka’s scythe-like talons. He’d paid the ultimate price. It took a certain skill to toil among the Qworkas. The Feathers seemed to be born with it and those tunnel-people who had been sent to work alongside them in the roosts either acquired the skill or died trying. How many had been lost in those early days? Rab couldn’t even remember anymore. There weren’t near so many Qworkas when he had worked on the roosts, but he’d been among those who had acquired the appropriate skills quickly and had only carried away a few scars.
The female Feather scout raised the multi-jointed fingers of one hand and motioned for Rab and Cloud to stop.
“What?” Cloud snapped, turning to Rab. “Are we just supposed to wait out here in the dirt?”
“Seems so,” Rab replied with a shrug when the two scouts proceeded to follow the breeder who had come up to greet them.
Rab watched as they headed into the settlement. While most humans were occupied over at the roosts, there were a few stragglers moving about the settlement; mostly women tending to young children. The Feathers liked to keep a breeding population of human workers even out in this woe-begotten place. Either the women and children were accustomed to Feather scouts coming and going from their settlement or they were schooled to ignore it – Rab didn’t know. All went about their business as though nothing out of the ordinary was happening. If they’d noticed two human travellers on the perimeter of their settlement, they didn’t show it.
Cloud dumped her pack and settled down on the ground beside it. Rab remained standing. It was easier to watch the scouts that way. He’d liked to have been able to hear them but the persistent noise of the Qworka young made that impossible. Not that he’d be able to understand much of what was said but sometimes even he could pick up on a particular tone in their speech. He’d like to have been able to talk to some of the human women, as well, but not one of them could have heard him even if he’d yelled at the top of his voice.
Evidently the Feathers who lived in the settlement were not deaf. Two others had come out to join the first and all three were involved in an animated discussion with their Feather scouts, heads bobbing rigidly as they talked. Something had them agitated.
Them say met’ah – click! – Qworkas that p’ace.
What place? And what exactly had Pi’a’weh meant by white Qworkas?
Rab would dearly love to have an answer to both questions, because his guess was that was exactly what the Feathers’ current conversation was about.
He looked away and turned to Cloud.
“Something is going on out here?”
“Why do you say that?” she asked, glancing up. She was halfway through relacing her left boot.
“Look for yourself.” He pointed towards the clutch of Feathers.
Cloud quickly finished with her boot and rose.
“Could be anything,” she said after a moment studying them. “A problem in the roosts even.”
Rab just shook his head. “The breeders here would deal with that themselves. Not discuss it with a couple of scouts who barely know one end of a Qworka from the other. Besides there’s nothing wrong with the roosts. You can see that plainly from here.”
Cloud fell silent for a while. “You think it’s got something to do with what Pi’a’weh was trying to tell us,” she said at last.
Their two Feather scouts had started back, leaving the breeders behind.
Cloud bent to retrieve her pack.
“Whatever it is,” she whispered, “they don’t look happy.”
Rab smiled to himself. How Cloud ever managed to assess a Feather’s mood, he couldn’t fathom. She was usually right though, and he never failed to take notice.
“Thanks for the warning,” Rab whispered. After one final glance towards the settlement, he fell back into step behind the scouts.
Rab had been keeping a careful account of the days. The Feathers were walking them quickly and, although the pace suited Rab – it meant they’d arrive at the tunnels in good time – he couldn’t help but think there was more to their urgency than some trouble with the mushroom crop. It had been many years since Rab had taken this route south back to the tunnels, many more years still since he and Gift had journeyed north with Sunny and her old grandfather. But he remembered it well and wished he didn’t. They wouldn’t come across the grave of the old man or the skeleton of his beloved horse. The elements would have seen to that. But it was a certainty they would be obliged to cross the river. Rab always hated that part of the journey, fording waist and sometimes chest-deep in the fast-flowing stream. The first time he’d crossed the river, travelling north from the tunnels, Gift had been swept from his shoulders. If it hadn’t been for Sunny, he’d have lost her then and there. And so it came as a surprise when he discovered that the Feathers, or more likely their human workers, had constructed a stone bridge across the narrowest part of the river. The bridge told him more about what the Feathers were doing top-side than he had learned inside the Kun’s settlement. They were moving about, covering territory.
More surprising still was the condition of the territory itself. Sure the climate was changing – growing warmer. But he hadn’t anticipated just how much the land would have responded during the time his every movement had been determined by the Kun. It hadn’t exactly turned verdant, but it showed every promise that it might. There was urse everywhere and, in some places, the rare and pitiful head of a new and different vegetation peeked above the surface.
At night, Cloud lay in his arms and they counted stars. Of course, they could see stars from inside the Kun’s settlement and, in some respects, had grown almost complacent about their presence in the night sky. But out on the surface, away from the haze of cooking fires, the tiny pin points of light looked so bright and seemed so distant, even Rab sometimes doubted what he knew to be absolutely true. A long time ago, some of his kind had ventured from one of those stars and settled here. Yet sometimes, most times, it seemed so impossible.
Although their scouts clearly didn’t like it, during the day Cloud stopped at each new show of vegetation to sample and assess its value. Some she declared too bitter; others she deemed potentially poisonous, at least to humans. When she did come upon a likely food source, she angered the scouts even further by dawdling longer than they obviously considered wise to gather some of the leaves to add to her existing supply back at the settlement and, on one occasion, hurried away to snatch a tiny inconspicuous-looking flower that Rab had completely overlooked. She was amassing quite a collection, which she kept bundled inside one of her spare shirts at the very top of her pack. Undoubtedly she had it in her mind to exploit some of the plants someday. How she was going to manage that was a mystery to Rab. It was unlikely the Feathers would allow any human to travel this far afield alone. He didn’t ask her about it. A long time ago he had learned not to query Cloud about things like that. Sooner or later she usually found a way and typically without his interference.
They arrived at the plateau above the tunnel city without incident. They hadn’t encountered any of Pi’a’weh’s white Qworkas. Nor had they come across any Top-siders. Rab was pleased about that – for the sake of the Top-siders anyway. Their numbers had been so reduced it was unlikely any small Top-sider party would have caused too much trouble for Rab, Cloud, and their two scouts. Those who still survived tended to raid the settlements not challenge lone travellers who usually carried too little of worth. It struck Rab as strange though that they had seen no evidence of Top-siders at all. He’d more or less expected to come upon something, maybe a ruined cart or a scatter of discarded rubbish, perhaps even a hastily-dug grave. Instead they saw nothing at all. It bothered him.
The first thing Rab noticed about the plateau above the tunnel city was the absence of smoke. Had it grown so warm underground that the tunnel-dwellers weren’t using their fires anymore? Or had they simply run out of fuel? If the latter, then the tunnel city was facing a larger problem than trouble with the mushroom crop.
The two scouts stopped at the top of the rock-hewn stairs leading down to the platform and the entrance to the tunnel city. At first Rab wasn’t sure what the scouts wanted until the female reached out and took his spear. Its loss had him wondering if he’d ever see it again. Still the scouts lingered and Rab finally realised that they meant for Cloud and him to precede them down the steps.
Not overly trusting souls, Rab thought to himself with a smile. Sure they’d been content to allow Cloud and him to trail them all the way from their settlement to the tunnels, but when it came to a confined climb down a set of stairs, where it would be all too easy to nudge them over the side, the scouts baulked. There were times when Rab feared of ever understanding these Feathers. It would have been just as easy to have attacked them from behind during their long journey, but it seemed they hadn’t thought of that. Or perhaps it was the fact that they had come to the rare place where the Feathers themselves were actually outnumbered. But there had only ever been one instance of resistance and that had occurred in the first days when the Feathers had surged through every tunnel in the city.
The challenge from the city’s inhabitants hadn’t amounted to much. Some tunnel-dwellers dead, Cloud’s birth father among them. More injured and left to Ruby’s care. It had been the surprise that was largely responsible for the tunnel-dwellers’ quick defeat. They simply weren’t prepared. Even if they’d had warning, Rab suspected the outcome would have been the same. They weren’t a fighting people. Hadn’t been for a very long time. If Sunny had still been alive, perhaps things might have been different. Perhaps not. Even Sunny could only have done so much. Other than Sunny, Gift was the only other person Rab could think of who might have been both clear-headed and stubborn enough to rally a league of defenders. But Gift hadn’t been raised in the tunnels. To the tunnel-dwellers, she was a Top-sider and, despite having a common adversary in the Feathers, tunnel-dwellers still bore a lingering distrust of Top-siders. They’d stolen the tunnel-dweller children, hadn’t they? Gift was only tolerated now and the fact that she’d risen to a position of some authority had more to do with the Feathers than the tunnel-dwellers. That and her innate skills and capabilities. Even the tunnel-dwellers had recognised her value. But now, if she truly had failed in maintaining the health of the mushroom crop, then there’d be no place for her here as far as the tunnel-dwellers were concerned. What the Feathers intended to do about it was another matter entirely.
Rab trailed behind Cloud towards the entrance of the tunnels. Last time he was here the heavy metal gate was lying on the ground just inside the entrance. No one had bothered to move it since the Feathers had broken it down. It was gone now. He caught up with Cloud as she stepped through the now open chasm, trying to catch her eye. If she’d noticed the missing gate, she wasn’t interested enough to mention it. She was the first to start down the upper tunnel and, despite the years she, too, had been away, didn’t miss a step as she moved through the relative darkness. At the entrance to ‘the house’ that marked the entrance to the lower tunnels she stopped and waited for Rab.
‘The house’ had been entirely stripped and clusters of shimmerers now colonised walls that had once been barren. Even the metal canister that once held the wadded-up balls of paper they’d used to stuff beneath their clothes for insulation was gone. The hearth, too, was cold and gave every appearance of not having been used for years. Once Rab had required the light from the hearth to make his way to the lower tunnel, but now that the shimmerers thrived here in ‘the house’ as well, the two narrow open entrances on the left side of the hearth were obvious. Rab headed towards the opening closest to the hearth and began to make his way ahead of Cloud down the shimmerer-lit lower tunnel into the city.
Emerging from the tunnel, he entered Market Square, surprised, although he shouldn’t have been, to find the place sparsely occupied by tunnel-dwellers who took little notice of their arrival. The stalls that had once lined both sides of the marketplace were now few in number and scattered randomly about the broad and open space. Overhead, the brightworms shone on, as though nothing had changed, and lit the floor below.
“It’s even worse than I thought it would be,” Cloud whispered, coming up behind him.
Although Cloud had returned to the tunnels not long after the Feathers had entered them, unlike Rab, she hadn’t been back here since. He should have thought to prepare her for what they’d find, but, glancing around, taking in the austerity more fully, Rab realised that he hadn’t even adequately prepared himself. It was the comparative silence that struck him the most. Once the place had buzzed with chatter and bartering, clanged and banged as goods changed hands, bustling with life. Now one of the big transport carts could be wheeled through the Square with absolute ease.
Rab looked past Cloud, seeking the scouts. They’d have to take Grocer’s Alley to reach the mushroom fields, but Rab didn’t know if he was permitted to accompany them that far.
When the female scout raised a hand and pointed, Rab started off through the Square towards the place where the smaller off-shoot tunnel connected with the large cavern that was Market Square. As he passed by some of the remaining stalls, a stall-holder would occasionally glance up, more hopeful than expectant, as Rab interpreted their expressions. He didn’t linger but, from the brief glimpse he had, didn’t recognise any of the stall-holders. That was no surprise. He hadn’t got to know many of the tunnel-dwellers anyway, even when he’d lived on and off among them during the years he’d spent searching for Gift. They were probably acquainted with Cloud but she passed wordlessly by each stall as well. Either they had forgotten her, which Rab doubted, or like Cloud, the people who had been left in the tunnel city chose to guard their talk whenever a Feather was around.
Grocer’s Alley was even more deserted than Market Square. In the past some of the entrances to the small niches that served as tunnel-dwellers’ homes had been covered over with strips of cloth. Even when an entrance had been left open, it was considered impolite to glance inside. Now Rab didn’t bother with the old courtesy. There didn’t seem much point. Every other niche showed signs of abandonment and those that weren’t abandoned looked stark. Gone were the glowing hearths, the pieces of furniture dotted here and there across the floor. Gone were the voices and the laughter. Gone was the life and the strength of the city.
Many times in the past Rab had marvelled at the tenacity and the resilience of the tunnel-dwellers. Many times he’d anticipated that the city, through a lack of food, resources and fuel, would wind its own quiet way down to extinction. Now it had finally happened and not at all the way he had expected. And if the mushroom crop could not be saved, then there was no place left here for anyone, not simply Gift.
They came to the end of Grocer’s Alley and a broad sweeping turn into the wide access tunnel leading to the mushroom fields. To the left was the enormous warehouse where the harvested crops were stored, awaiting transport in smaller carts down Grocer’s Alley to the food merchants in Market Square. Rab hadn’t laboured with Fin and Stitch in the mushroom fields very often but every time he had taken this route in the past, the access tunnel had been throbbing with activity. Either overladen transport carts were being hauled along the tracks where croppers had gathered in preparation for offloading into the warehouse or emptied carts were being hauled back along the same track to the fields. Now the long track was empty and there were no croppers waiting at the entrance to the warehouse, which, for the first time Rab could remember, stood with its two massive doors firmly closed.
The track ran hard against the wall of the tunnel on one side and, as they crossed over the dual rails to the opposite side and a clearer path, Cloud stumbled and grabbed Rab’s arm. Like him, she’d been looking back towards the sealed warehouse. Hands clutched, they walked abreast beside the track in silence, the scouts following closely behind. Towards the end of the access tunnel they came upon a transport cart that had been left abandoned on the tracks. Usually the croppers ran the carts in tandem: three carts coupled together with a complicated type of locking mechanism Rab never had bothered to study. But there was only one cart standing idle on the track and although when he passed it Rab did catch that distinctive earthy aroma of mushrooms, the cart was completely empty.
Behind him, Rab heard a brief spate of feathertalk clicks and snaps before the male scout stepped up, passed by them and took the lead. They were nearing the entrance to the enormous domed cavern and the fields of the ailing crop.
Rab glanced over at his wife, walking silently beside him. Cloud had saved the crop once before. Could she do it again? Even if her skills were up to the task of rescuing the crop, was it really worth the effort?
Maybe the tunnels simply weren’t meant for their kind any longer.
SHAUNE Lafferty Webb was born in Brisbane, Australia. Her father was an amateur astronomer and her eldest brother, an avid science fiction reader, so perhaps it was inevitable that she developed an early enthusiasm for writing speculative fiction.
After obtaining a degree in geology from the University of Queensland, Shaune subsequently worked in geochemical laboratories, exploration companies, and, while living in the United States, at a multinational scientific institute involved in exploration beneath the ocean floors.
Her short stories have appeared in AntipodeanSF, The Nautilus Engine, Blue Crow Magazine, and The Vandal and her novels, ‘Bus Stop on a Strange Loop’ and ‘Balanced in An Angel’s Eye’, were released in 2011 and 2012, respectively. ‘Once a Dog’, an anthropomorphic tale, was voted runner-up for the 2018 Ursa Major Award in the category of Best Novel.
‘Cold Faith’ and its sequel, ‘Faithless’, are the first and the second books in The Safe Harbour Chronicle, a trilogy released by Hague Publishing.
Shaune lives in Brisbane with her husband, a research scientist, and a pair of wayward canine companions.
For more information visit Shaune's author page.
Book 3 of The Safe Harbour Chronicle
The moral rights of Shaune Lafferty Webb to be identified as the author of this work have been asserted.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the publisher.
Copyright 2019 Hague Publishing
Cover: The Unforgotten by Jade Zivanovic http://www.steampowerstudio.com.au/
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